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    A lonely holiday is lightened

    MacDill gives a dinner for families of fighters called away - some know not where - on Thanksgiving.

    By BABITA PERSAUD
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 21, 2001


    BRANDON -- November is always the worst. Three times now, Jeff Maxwell has been deployed overseas during Thanksgiving. This time, it's Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, an island with a U.S. communications outpost for the war in Afghanistan.

    Maxwell, a communications officer, left last Thursday. Quickly, he and his wife exchanged Christmas presents. He got her pajamas and a robe, "things he said would keep me comfortable while he was away," Myra Maxwell said.

    During their goodbyes, he told her not to worry; she told him she was proud.

    Since then, "I've made every effort to be busy," Mrs. Maxwell said. "But it's not easy. I miss him so."

    Having MacDill Air Force Base organize a special, early Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday at the Elks Lodge in Brandon helped.

    Having Gov. Jeb Bush show up, shake her hand and say to the 200 people in the room, "We are so thankful what you and your loved ones do to protect our freedoms," also helped.

    The U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command are headquartered at MacDill. With secrecy at a premium, some family members don't know where their loved ones are deployed.

    "It's tough," said Master Sgt. Mike Vinsick, in Army fatigues. He recently received an e-mail picture from a squad providing food and fitness needs for servicemen abroad. It was a picture of the whole group.

    "They look sad," Vinsick said.

    The dinner Tuesday had all the makings of a festive event. Round tables were set up throughout the flag-decorated lodge as if it were a wedding reception. Autumn leaves and candles decorated the tables. A disco ball tossed flecks of light around the room.

    People snapped photographs of Bush as he greeted each table. Holiday tunes played through speakers.

    The room was in sharp contrast to the big, empty house Lori Harrison walks into after working all day as a legal secretary. Her husband, a satellite communications sergeant, is stationed near Afghanistan.

    "It's just me and the animals now," Harrison said. The animals are a cat named Tiger and a goldfish called Sushi. Harrison sat by herself at one table, picking at her turkey and mashed potato dinner with a fork.

    "I want him to come home soon," she said.

    MacDill Family Resource Center has done much to help by hosting support groups. It is like a family, many said Tuesday. One squadron planned a baby shower for Alejandra Butler after her husband, Ken, was sent to the Middle East three months after their baby, Zachery Daniel, was born.

    During the shower, the squadron chief placed a surprise call to Ken Butler. "It was a wonderful surprise," Mrs. Butler said, holding Zachery in her arms and smiling.

    Some in the room Tuesday had already served. Tech. Sgt. Mark Harper operated the boom in the back of the KC-135R in-flight refueling plane during the first day of B-2 bomber drops on Afghanistan.

    "I'm done for right now," he said. "But if the need arises again, I'll go."

    His wife, Donna, seated next to him, patted him on the shoulder.

    "I'm glad he's back," she said.

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